April 05, 2012 Features & Images » Feature Story

Spilling the Gears 

The Whistler Gondola Inside and Out. A look under the hood of the Whistler Gondola after more than 56,000 hours of operation.

click to flip through (9) PHOTO BY TOBIAS C. VAN VEEN

In which our intrepid reporter tells all, going behind-the-scenes of the Whistler Gondola to explore its innards, revealing what is to come for the workhorse, and what tales have been spun both inside and out, from its lift lines to its challenges.

It's mid-afternoon, and I'm rolling in to Olympic Station on the Whistler Gondola. A dreary sky looms above, rain spattering the cabin's well worn, wrap-around windows. As the temperatures drop to a hint below zero at the Olympic Station's 1,000 metres, the rain turns to slushy snow. It's another late March winter storm, and I'm here to meet Wayne Wiltse, Lift Maintenance Manager — though I tend to think of him as the chief engineer of this hulking, mechanical beast of a people-mover, occasionally throwing his arms up in the air and shouting "I just canna make it go any faster, Cap'n!"

Stepping out beyond the cabin's creaking doors, I do what I've never done in my 24 years of riding the gondie — I open the door of the sacred computer room and poke my head in. Flashing lights flicker across the glass-doored computer cabinet. An alarm sounds. The phone rings, and a blue-jacketed liftie looks up. An inquiry or two to the disheveled Ozzie team reveals that nobody knows who Wayne is. After assuring one and all of my Press status, I am led to a staff room tucked in behind the pop machines — yet another secret space I had no idea existed — and wait.

Wearing a black jacket of my own, everyone eating lunch assumes I am an off-duty engineer until I pull out the Nikon DSLR camera and strap on the flash.

"Hey mate," drawls the liftie across the table from me. "You work here right?"

"Not quite," I say. "But I'm in the right place, here on a mission." He nods. "I could tell," he says. "You've got the racoon eyes." I look at the liftie's tag; he's from a place called Walla Walla. "You can't be no tourist," he continues, gesturing at my goggle tan. Indeed.

Flashing the Control Room

Within a few minutes, Wayne walks in, a bearded, bear-like man who is everything you imagine an engineer to be — kind of big, rough and tumble, fast on dispensing as much wit as knowledge. He's covered in as much oil as clothing. I like him upon first glance; I can tell he's going to show me the goods.

With the brisk attitude of a man with things to do, places to be, Wayne suggests we start in the computer control room that looks out onto the incoming cabins. As we swing open the door, I immediately pose the question. "Can I take pictures with the flash?" I say. This is apparently a serious matter, ever since I've been a grommer hauling little skinny skis, I've always wondered what would happen if I popped a flash in the computer room. Would the system go into shutdown, acidic smoke drifting from the ancient circuit boards?

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